Stereo TV On the Way

As I type this, I’m watching a time-shifted Castle episode through my Xfinity DVR and a high-definition digital television with 5+1 sound. It was almost painful to be reminded that my writing life extends far enough back for the introduction of stereo in TV broadcasting to be worthy of a feature article in a regional business magazine. Originally published in the September, 1984 issue of South Bend Magazine.

Local broadcasters’ conference rooms and local retailers’ display floors are abuzz with talk of stereo television, but how soon the fruits of those conversations will come together in Michiana homes is still an open question.

Even those most directly involved admit to uncertainty about the timetable.

“We do not at this point have any plans for 1984. It’s a possibility for 1985,” says Don Fuller, general manager of WSJV-TV (28-ABC).

“I don’t think we’re at the point where we’re ready to make a decision. We have to do some more research into the costs involved,” says Russ Somerville, an engineer at WNDU-TV (16-NBC).

“It’s a question of the economics and whether there’s anything to put on the air,” says Barry Smith, general manager of WSBT-TV (22-CBS). “I would say `85, but that’s a guess.”

“Right now, to be honest, we don’t have any real plans, mainly because of the cost. Stereo is in the five-year plan,” says Clem Kuespert, chief engineer at WNIT-TV (34-PBS).

But all agree that stereo television is inevitable, despite the $10,000 to $50,000 bill each station will run up in the process of converting its equipment. The green light has already been given in the form of approval by the Federal Communications Commission of a standard for multichannel television sound (MTS).

More importantly, consumers have finally begun to rebel against listening to “Evening At Symphony” or a Michael Jackson video through a cheap three-inch speaker. The present monoaural television sound is as esthetically satisfying as attending a concert with one ear packed full of wet sand. Stereo television will provide two channels of sound information, creating the three-dimensional spaciousness consumers have come to expect from home audio, FM radio, and even movie theater sound.

The MTS system is compatible with existing sets, but special equipment (either built into the set or in the form of an add-on adapter) will be needed to hear the stereo effect. Stereo TV represents the first major change in television broadcasting since the introduction of color, and all broadcasters are finding themselves both pressured by and dependent on their networks.

“ABC’s philosophy is that they would like to be in it first,” Fuller notes. “The networks control most of the time on everybody’s station today, so that would be a very important factor.”

According to Somerville, NBC has announced its intention to offer stereo broadcasts, but has announced no starting date. And Smith indicated that one unspecified show on CBS’ fall schedule will at least be produced in stereo, though “no decision has been made about transmission.”

When those decisions are made and timetables set, expect the local affiliates to move quickly. Smith says that “if it makes sense financially” WSBT will begin to offer stereo TV as soon as CBS does.

“All of us are just trying to figure out the best moves to make, and we’re looking to some of our industry leaders for those answers,” says Fuller.

Part of the stated uncertainty is almost certainly due to corporate cageyness. Just as color boosted the ratings of the first shows which featured it, stereo may prove a factor in the competition for Michiana’s 150,000 television homes.

“I think it definitely could have an impact on local ratings if it were properly promoted,” Fuller says. “The actual value of it I don’t know, but the promotional aspect could very well help the local station that was first.”

That advantage is bound to be fleeting, however, as the competition scrambles to catch up. Rick Orben, executive vice president for the Coach Curtis Mathes retail chain, says “My personal opinion is that all the stations will be forced to go with stereo once they break the market.”

“It’s one of those things that once it catches on, then you haven’t any choice,” Kuespert agrees. “Once the pendulum starts to swing you’d better get on  it.”

That prescription also applies to Heritage Cablevision and other area cablecasters.

“Obviously, we want to offer the consumer whatever they would be able to receive off the air,” sayd Annette Rotolo, Heritage’s general manager. “I think we’ll be carrying those services in stereo as soon as we can, because we recognize that it would be detrimental not to.”

Rotolo indicated that ESPN, a sports channel, would begin stereo broadcasting “very shortly,” and added that premium movie channels HBO and Showtime and music channels MTV and CTV would likely follow suit.

Despite all the enthusiastic planning, Greg Gitzi, co-director of WNDU’s Golden Dome Productions, says “I don’t see any long-term advantage for the station, because it’s going to take so many years for the public to turn over TV sets.”

Smith has the same opinion, but for a different reason. “After the initial novelty has worn off, stereo will not be as important as the program. The show’s the thing,” Smith says. “A bad program in stereo is still a bad program.”

If the stations can’t gain ground by offering stereo, they could still lose ground by not offering it. That pattern also holds at the network level, where several years of declining viewership have been a matter of serious concern. Stereo is seen there as a means for traditional broadcasters to hold onto their present audience in the face of diverse competition and rising expectations.

Those rising expectations have been driven in part by the emergence of stereo videodisc players and stereo videocassette recorders. But the major driver, Smith suggested, may be the television set manufacturers themselves.

No matter what the source, consumer interest is growing.

“More and more people, not just audiophiles, want to hear their television in stereo,” reports Orben. “One out of every ten people is walking in wanting to know if this or that TV has stereo capability and if we know when stereo TV will be available.”

Curtis Mathes is one of several manufacturers with a growing line of stereo offerings, including console models, home entertainment centers, and 19″ and 25″ monitors. Eight out of the 12 consoles and 5 of the 17 table models in the Fall-Winter catalog of Sears, the nation’s largest retailer, feature some form of stereo circuitry. Other manufacturers taking the plunge include Zenith. RCA, and Quasar.

Consumers in the market for a new television will find that, for now, full stereo (decoding circuitry, amplifiers, and speakers) is featured only in the more expensive high-end models. One stereo Quasar console goes for $1,200; a Sears four-speaker unit for nearly $1,000.

If you already own a sound system for tape or records, a more economical alternative is a television which has output jacks to allow you to use your present amplifiers and speakers. Sears’ $490 stereo 19″ color table model is one such. A $100 adapter is required to link it to the family stereo.

Those whose present TV set is working just fine won’t have to junk it to take advantage of stereo broadcasts. Radio Shack and other manufacturers are expected to fight for the opportunity to sell consumers specialized FM tuners to serve as stand-alone stereo TV adapters. Competition should keep at least some units under $100.

“I think its going to be one tremendous market,” Orben says.

On more than one previous occasion, electronics manufacturers have tried to create a market for a new technology and failed miserably. Remember quadraphonic sound? But if broadcasters follow though on their plans, the prospect for stereo TV looks bright, and the consumer looks like the big winner.

“I don’t know if stereo sound is going to particularly benefit, say, local news, ” Gitzi says. “But if you’re watching a big production I think the enhancement from stereo will add greatly to your enjoyment.”